From Disruption to Transformation

Posted on Tuesday, November 17, 2020

By Troy Newport

It likely will be years before we fully understand all the ways our world changed because of COVID-19 and the concurrent domestic upheaval. Virtual schooling, cancellations, shuttered businesses, lost jobs, lost lives; the dire impacts are heartbreaking and unfathomable.Through all the gloomy stories and experiences, PCI also heard positive stories that involved resilience and community as companies pulled together and pivoted to survive during a critical time. This is but one of those stories.

Located in the Lombardy region of Italy, less than an hour north of Milan and about 20 minutes south of the Switzerland border, is a small commune called Casnate con Bernate. This two-square-mile municipality is situated near Lake Como, a picturesque lake about which the likes of Mark Twain, William Wadsworth, and Ernest Hemingway have written, and has been featured in movies such as Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, Ocean’s Twelve, and Casino Royale (2006). Despite the beautiful backdrop and modern tourism draw, the area’s economy has historically relied on industry, especially silk manufacturing, so you find a number of textile companies here. You’ll also find the headquarters of PCI member Menphis S.p.a. in Casnate con Bernate, and an equally rich history.

Founder and CEO Gilberto Menin has been working in the sublimation and textile space since the 1960s, and in 1982, Gilberto founded Menphis as an independent company. Gilberto instilled Menphis with a proud R&D mentality, encouraging his engineers to spend a portion of each workday thinking on individual projects, a practice very much like tech giants such as Google adopted in later years. His son Marco, managing director for Menphis, says Gilberto has always made known his expectations that employees should do their best no matter what. His mantra is to go to great lengths to never say no to potential customers who come to them with new ideas. No matter how unorthodox or strange their ideas or challenges are, Gilberto wants his team to work to find a viable solution. At the same time, Marco says, Menphis has been an eco-conscious company, even before it became en vogue. An example of their eco-ingenuity is their entry into the dye sublimation on metal industry, which applies a thin film on surfaces, giving the appearance of wood grain, stone, leather, and other features. Treating aluminum with their film to create wood appearance saves trees. Aluminum, which is 100% recyclable, isn’t combustible, doesn’t decay, doesn’t require any solvent-based maintenance, isn’t affected by humidity, and isn’t susceptible to bug infestation, mold, or peeling. In addition, the inks they work with are non-toxic. He adds that a section of their plant is even powered by solar energy.

Maintaining their textile DNA, Gilberto began testing the application of hot-melt nylon plastics onto textiles in the early 90s. During this time, they were primarily serving Italy and other Mediterranean countries such as Spain and Greece. By 1995, Gilberto began testing sublimation on metal, and after more than a decade of experimentation, Menphis started developing sublimation powders. With these expanded services,  Menphis extended their footprint to the UAE, Russia, China, Thailand, and Australia. Fast forward another decade and Menphis had grown to the point where they were positioned to acquire equipment manufacturer SEF Italia, which allowed them to establish the machinery side of their business. By now having the powder, film, and machinery components all under one roof, Menphis felt they could better serve the sublimation market. It also provided the remaining piece of the puzzle they needed to penetrate the U.S. market.

In March of this year,  the U.S. rapidly progressed from many states reporting their first COVID-19 cases to shutdowns of non-essential businesses and cancellations of concerts and other large social gatherings. At the same time, an enormous human tragedy was unfolding in the Mediterranean. By the end of March, Italy had reached over 100,000 confirmed cases, with almost 1,000 people dying daily by the end of the month. The northern part of the country, especially the Lombardy region, has been the hardest hit throughout the pandemic. Approximately 10 million people live in this region, and Milan, the capital of Lombardy, is an epicenter of art, commerce, entertainment, fashion, and finance. Even so, the region’s wealth, world-renowned educational institutions, and quality healthcare system couldn’t turn the tables on the pandemic.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte initiated the process of locking down towns and provinces to try to control the spread of COVID-19. These unprecedented moves unfolded over a period of weeks, and a logistical nightmare and potential global value chain interruption loomed. Police checkpoints popped up around town, and suddenly Menphis employees were being stopped on their way to and from work, even though they were still legally able to work. Concerns mounted if employees could keep making their way to work each day, and how long day-to-day business could be conducted. Menphis knew they had to react quickly if they had any hope of servicing customers and supplying their international clientele to ensure they had enough product to continue operations.

Before the pandemic struck, Menphis was already in the process of approaching the U.S. market with a full portfolio of sublimation powders and equipment. The 2018 acquisition of SEF Italia positioned them with access to existing relationships SEF Italia had already developed in the U.S. If you read “Against the Grain: Faux Finishes” in the September/October 2019 issue of Powder Coated Tough, you may remember the company featured in that article originally purchased their sublimation equipment from SEF Italia and their powders from Menphis. With that existing relationship, it made sense to drop anchor  in Florida and share office and showroom space with their customer. Menphis formed their U.S. subsidiary, MenphisUSA, and began to identify potential customers, cultivate leads, and guide them through the initial development process.

Joining PCI was another part of the strategy for developing business in the United States. Marco explains, “The main reason we joined PCI was to help find and build relationships with market influencers within the industry. PCI manages to put the best powder coaters, architects, and extruders in the same room together and get them talking. For a new business coming to the States, this network of knowledgeable experts is indispensable.”

By the time the pandemic struck the U.S., Menphis had established a stable of U.S. customers who relied on their powders and machinery support to remain operational. As business conditions worsened at supersonic speeds, they methodically calculated what customers may require in the short term and shippedadvance stocks of materials to their largest U.S. customers to ensure they had enough powder and film to coat their products and keep their businesses running. While working overtime to pull off these rapid shipments,   local authorities were increasingly policing travel, which resulted in more frequent checkpoint stops on the way  to and from the facility. Meanwhile, there was increasing concern whether seaports would remain open, leaving Menphis cut off from raw materials and an inability to get outbound shipments to their customers. There were concerns prices for raw materials may spike, or some may become scarce. For example, ethanol is a common solvent used in the printing process; it is also used in disinfecting agents.

As a whole, Marco says they were able to maintain supplies to their customers and work through challenges as they arose. Employees who can perform their functions at home have been working remotely, and the remainder  of their staff have been able to safely work at the facility. While it has been an adjustment taking an extremely collaborative team to partially working remotely,  they have been able to maintain an effective working environment.

Due to the severity of economic fallout from the pandemic, most companies in Italy weren’t able to sustain that level of commitment to their employees. Despite the logistics challenges caused by the pandemic, Marco discloses Menphis has been able to continue paying their entire staff, including benefits. Marco credits Italian policymakers for supporting companies with financial support packages.

Gilberto set high standards for Menphis over the years, with forward-thinking commitments to R&D, environmental focus, and customer-centric philosophies. Through one of the most challenging times in history, his team found a way to service their customers and keep the lights on in their facility. How well a company responds  to adversity can often be traced directly to the top of the executive team. It appears Menphis has been in good hands and has a long, bright future ahead. Non ci piove.

Troy Newport is publisher for Powder Coated Tough.